About ten years ago I joined a volunteer mountain rescue group in Colorado. My new-member training was rough at first; I didn’t take easily to the basic medical and technical skills I would need in order to join the team, and I wondered how well I would handle the inevitable pressure, mayhem and carnage involved in a real rescue.
About a month into my training process I left town to compete in one of the biggest adventure races of my amateur racing career: Primal Quest, a ten-day, 500-mile, multi-sport team odyssey in the wilderness areas around Lake Tahoe. I was a last-minute replacement for a woman who’d been injured in training on a team called Outback Gear, and I when I arrived in Tahoe I met my teammates for the first time. They had booked us a nice little rental house in a quiet neighborhood near the lake for our three days of pre-race briefings, skill tests and equipment checks. They gave me an upstairs bedroom with a balcony overlooking the residential neighborhood streets that bordered the lakeshore.
On our second night in town at about 4:00 am, I heard a terrible crash and the screech of tortured metal on metal in front of the house. I ran out onto the balcony and saw a car upside down in the middle of the road, and a young blond girl lying motionless behind it. There was a skateboard next to her, and one of her sneakers had come off and been flung far from her body. A young man crawled out of the driver’s side window of the upside down car and ran away, into the woods. My teammate Trevor dashed out to the road while I called 911.
I don’t remember many details from the next hour or so, and I think that’s because I was so traumatized. I kept thinking that as a new member of my rescue team I ought to be able to do something more than just make the 911 call and bring out the sleeping bag that Trevor requested to cover her with. The rest of the time I stood there helplessly. Police arrived, and then a medivac helicopter. Later that day we heard she had died at the hospital. She was 14 years old, and she’d been waiting for a school bus when the car hit her. The car was full of drunk young men coming back from a late night at the casinos.
We didn’t forget that young girl during the race. We talked about her from time to time, especially when we were out on long treks or paddles and needed something to talk about to take our minds off the physical pain of the slog. When we weren’t talking about her, I was thinking about her. I asked myself repeatedly how I was going to deal with broken and even deceased rescue subjects in the mountains of Colorado when I clearly couldn’t even handle a car accident victim that I had nothing to do with. What if I froze up under pressure instead of helping the team?
I considered withdrawing from the team when I got back to Colorado but something made me hang in there until I became an active member and was issued a pager. I’m glad I did, because my first two missions reversed every fear I had. One mission was a body recovery for a teenage boy who fell from a 1000-foot cliff and suffered severe trauma. The other was both a body recovery and a medical evacuation for a couple who hit a tree snowmobiling; he was dead and she was badly injured, a piece of her femur lying on the trail nearby. Both missions were far more bloody and gruesome than the car accident in Tahoe had been. And I had no problem handling them whatsoever.
It dawned on me fairly soon that what made the difference was having a role to play, no matter how small. Even though all I did was help bag a body, carry a corner of a litter, or hold up an IV bag for the paramedic, I had a clear purpose and that made everything OK. In fact, it was more than OK; despite the sadness of the events, I felt good about helping to get closure for a family or helping to save a life.
What’s the point? Your employees need a clear purpose too, especially during unsettling periods of organizational change. Give them a role to play in managing the change and they’re likely to remain calm and focused. Let them stand helplessly by, dwelling on the perceived loss and wishing they knew what to do, and you’ll have traumatized, resistant employees. We all need a purpose at work, and sometimes, having that purpose turns a real sour event into a rewarding one.